There is little question that the Masters is the most well-run golf tournament in the world and has been for quite some time.
The course is immaculate, television coverage is interrupted by fewer commercials than any of the other major championships, patrons are treated like old friends rather than a herd of cattle being shuffled in and out of a large green pasture and you can still grab a sandwich, soft drink and cookie for under $5 at the nearest concession stand.
Even the massive Ikea-esque souvenir shops are run with military-like precision. All shirts, hats and other items for sale are hanging up with a number next to them. So, if you see a hat that you like, you can walk up to the counter and tell one of the employees that you would like hat No. 23. The employee will then have that exact hat in front of you within seconds, and despite literally thousands of people running in all directions carrying large bags overflowing with $40 hats and $95 shirts, you can still manage to check out within minutes at one of the 200 cashier stations lined up along the exit area.
Of course you could probably write a book about aspects of Augusta National Golf Club’s policies that might have been social unacceptable over the years, but speaking purely in terms of the actual golf tournament and spectator experience, the Masters is head and shoulders above the rest.
That is why the handling of the 2013 Masters by the Augusta National Golf Club was so shocking and disappointing.
Augusta National dropped the ball several times last week, particularly around the implementation of the rules of the game, and as a result, the 2013 Masters might wind up being remembered more for Tiger Woods’ rules infraction than for Adam Scott becoming the first Australian in history to capture a green jacket.
It all began on Friday morning when 14-year-old Asian Amateur champion Tianlang Guuan was hit with a one-stroke penalty on the 17th hole for slow play. Guan’s group was put on the clock back at the 12th hole and Guan had taken 10 seconds too long to play his second shot on 17 after having to switch his club due to a change in wind direction.
About an hour after Guan came off the course, television coverage jumped to Tiger Woods’ group on the fourth tee where Woods was waiting to tee off while two other groups where standing on that exact same tee box also waiting to play the fourth hole.
Talk about a logjam on the tee. How is it possible that Guan was handed down a one-stroke penalty for slow play when someone or some group was playing slow enough that three groups were backed up on the fourth tee box?
The third of those four groups would have likely had to wait a close to 45 minutes just to hit their tee shots into the par-three fourth. Man, talk about slow play.
By all accounts, Guan’s group, which also consisted of Matteo Manassero and Ben Crenshaw, was indeed out of position and Guan did go over the time limit set for players once they have been put on the clock.
However, Guan’s group clearly wasn’t the only group out of position on Friday, and Guan also wasn’t the only slow player in the field last week.
It is unknown whether Augusta National was looking to make some form of a statement about slow play last week or not, but if it was, it did so at the worst possible time while choosing the worst possible target. Luckily Guan still snuck in under the cut line despite the one-stroke penalty he was assessed during his second round.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Guan’s penalty heard round the world was actually just a warm-up for the main event.
On Saturday morning, Augusta National made arguably it’s most controversial rules decision since 1958 when Arnold Palmer was granted free relief on 12th hole from a ball that was semi-plugged in the rough despite rules official Arthur Lacey explicitly telling Palmer that he was not entitled to take relief from that position.
Palmer played his first ball as it lied but then evoked rule 3-3a which states that if a player is in doubt about a ruling, he can drop a second ball and complete the hole with two balls. Palmer made a double bogey with his original ball and a par with his second ball.
The Masters Tournament Rules Committee later ruled that Palmer’s par with his second ball would count towards his final score, which of course was met with extreme disagreement from Lacey as well as Palmer’s playing partner Ken Venturi.
On Friday evening, Tiger Woods’ third shot into the par-five 15th hole struck the flag stick and ricocheted off into the lake right next to the Sarazen Bridge.
From this point Woods had three options under rule 26-1:
1) Hit his next shot from the designated drop zone.
2) Take a line as far back as he would like from where the ball crossed into the hazard (this choice would have put him somewhere behind the grandstands lining the right side of the 15th green.
3) He could return to the original spot from which he played, and drop "as nearly as possible'' from where he played the third shot.
Woods chose the third option, only he intentionally dropped his ball two yards further back from where he had originally hit his third shot.
The Masters Tournament Rules Committee was aware of this possible rules infraction prior to Woods finishing his round. It reviewed the tape and decided on its own that Woods probably hadn’t committed a rules infraction, so it didn’t even bring this potential issue up to Woods prior to Woods signing his scorecard.
This was the Rule Committee’s first mistake. Standard protocol at most professional events is to contact the player before he or she signs the scorecard to let the participant know that there was potentially a rules infraction that they would like the participant to take a look at.
This was precisely what happened to Dustin Johnson on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship, which is why he was given a two-stroke penalty and removed from the playoff rather than being completely disqualified from the event for signing an incorrect scorecard.
About 20 minutes after Woods had signed his scorecard he unknowingly admitted to this rules infraction during a post-round interview when he said, “I went down to the drop area, that wasn't going to be a good spot, because obviously it's into the grain, it's really grainy there. And it was a little bit wet so it was muddy and not a good spot to drop. So I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back and I took, tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit.”
Now the Masters Rules Committee was in a real pickle. It hadn’t advised Woods that he may have been guilty of a rules infraction on the 15th hole, and now Woods has just gone and inadvertently told the world that he had indeed intentionally dropped his ball two yards further back from the spot of his third shot, which is of course not "as nearly as possible'' from where he had initially played the third shot.
The No. 1 player in the world, and of course golf’s cash cow when it comes to television ratings, had now signed an incorrect scorecard which carries a penalty of an automatic disqualification from the event.
The Rules Committee was sent scrambling, and it finally came up with the idea of severely bending rule 33-7 so that Woods would incur only a two-stroke penalty and still be allowed to play the weekend.
Rule 33-7, also known as the “HD TV rule”, states that
“A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Rules Committee considers such action warranted.”
“If the Committee is satisfied that the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules, it would be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving the disqualification penalty prescribed…The penalty stroke(s) associated with the breach would, however, be applied to the hole where the breach occurred.”
This rule was essentially put in place for an instance such as where a player is in a hazard and his club ever so slightly grazes a twig. The player might not have physically been able to see that rules infraction, but it was picked up in slow motion HD TV and a viewer calls in about this issue after the player has already signed his scorecard.
The USGA never intended this rule to apply to players simply not knowing the rules of the game nor would it have ever thought that a tournament rules committee would consider not knowing the rules of the game as a situation where a player “could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules.”
Apparently the Masters Tournament Rules Committee thought that it was unreasonable for a professional golfer to have read the rules of the game.
So, in a matter of two days, the Masters Tournament Rules Committee singled out a 14-year-old amateur for slow play when the entire course was backed up just a couple of hours later and no further penalties were handed out; it didn’t notify Woods of his potential rules infraction when it should have; and it then bent rule 33-7 a full 90 degrees to allow Woods to continue playing when anyone with any knowledge of the rules, or even a hint common sense for that matter, knew full well that rule 33-7 was never meant to apply to players not knowing the rules of the game and that Woods should have almost certainly been disqualified for blatantly breaking rule 26-1 and signing for an incorrect scorecard.
And just to top it all off, the Masters has become so concerned with finishing the event close as possible to prime time that it nearly had to postpone the playoff between Scott and Angel Cabrera to Monday morning due to darkness.
The Masters has been the best run golf tournament in the world for quite some time, and it will likely remain so moving forward.
The last time the integrity of the Masters tournament was questioned was 55 years ago, and based on Augusta National’s pride in its event and its incredible attention to detail, we can all but assume that we will not see another debacle like this for a very, very long time, which is of course good news for all Masters fans.
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